Carrying on Campus When You’re a Person of Color

Legislation in Texas allowing students with licenses to carry concealed weapons on campus is still in its infancy, but it poses significant danger for one specific group: students of color who choose to carry.
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This past August, a somber anniversary carried with it a new beginning for gun politics on college campuses. On August 1, 1966, the largest-scale campus massacre in history took place from a tower overlooking the University of Texas–Austin. Former Marine Charles Whitman scaled the tower heavily armed, and carried out a shooting spree that killed 15, including himself, and injured over 30. In later years, the advent of similar massacres at Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama–Huntsville, and Umpqua Community College would render such an incident unimpressive, but, in the 1960s, it was unthinkable.

Fifty years to the day after this groundbreaking event, a controversial piece of legislation, SB-11, went into effect: Concealed weapons would be permissible on public college campuses across Texas. The timing, legislators maintain, was coincidental—a date chosen after a decided delay of the original implementation date of September 1, 2015. And so, the landscape of college campuses would change, seismically for some, on the anniversary of a monumental event.

Despite Texas’ gun-toting reputation, it is not alone in permitting campus carry. According to Zachary Zalneraitis, director of public relations for the national advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry, concealed carry is legal on campuses in Utah (2007), Colorado (2012), Idaho (2014), and now Texas (2016). Kansas passed a concealed carry on campus bill, but granted colleges a four-year exemption to analyze campus security plans before going into effect in 2017. It should also be noted that, despite the frenzy that this particular wave of legislation has caused, concealed carry exists in these other states largely without incident — a point emphasized by current University of Texas Ph.D student and Virginia Tech massacre survivor Nicholas Roland at a recent town hall meeting on the topic.

Reactions to the new legislation have, as University of Texas system chancellor Bill McRaven expected, provoked litigation on both sides of the argument; three professors have filed to keep guns from their classrooms, and SCC has pushed to prevent bans on guns in faculty offices. Arguments surrounding guns’ effects on academic freedom, mental health and safety, and conflict resolution skills have been raised raucously. But there’s an additional argument to explore regarding the impact of this legislation: Does the new legislation disproportionately affect students of color?

In her Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece about the coincidence in dates, former UT-Austin professor Rosa Eberly poses a question to “all of us who value public higher education and its role in making feasible collective self-governance: Whose collective rights are violated by the prospect of concealed carry in campus buildings?”

The crucial answer to this question: those for whom the rules aren’t applied equally. And on college campuses, especially in light of protests and calls for social justice, this unquestionably includes students of color.

Across the University of Texas system, 15 percent of students identify as African American. And these students stand to be perceived far differently when carrying a weapon — even legally — than their counterparts in the majority.

Whether it’s a series of microaggressions from peers and professors on campus, or larger displays of vitriol like the recent “banana attacks” at American University, the last year has signaled race relations — even at colleges and universities — are in need of repair. Moreover, events that transpired in the months leading up to August’s law are keeping students of color anxious. The police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July, followed by the harrowing altercation between behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey and a North Miami police officer — including the haunting exchange of “Why did you shoot me?” followed by an answer: “I don’t know…” — likely still weigh on students as they return to campuses where they’re viewed as visitors, rather than equally hard-working students in pursuit of an education. And at home in Texas, Mark Hughes attended a Black Lives Matter protest with a weapon carried open, as was his right through his legally obtained license, only to be labeled a suspect in a police shooting by the Dallas Police Department. As the shootings of black men and women continue to pile up, minority students are rightfully in a constant state of high alert.

SB-11 affords all concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons on public college and university campuses, a point driven home by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston). In a hearing clarifying the law, she notes, “[students] have a right to carry [guns] and have passed a background check…. I hope you don’t put these individuals in a place where they are treated differently than other students.” But there is a different dynamic of “different treatment” already in play and hard at work. Across the University of Texas system, for example, 15 percent of students identify as African American. And these students stand to be perceived far differently when carrying a weapon — even legally — than their counterparts in the majority.

Imagine the anxiety of a student who is lawfully carrying a weapon each time he or she stretches in class, a rising shirt hem revealing a holster or the butt of a weapon. Or monitoring the cuff of your jeans each time you bend forward to grab a dropped pen, worried someone will read your motion as threatening. Mistakes like this, however earnest, cost people like Amadou Diallo (a Guinean immigrant shot to death in New York reaching for a wallet), Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old shot to death while playing with a BB gun in an open carry state), and, most recently, Tyree King (a 13-year-old shot to death while playing with a BB gun in an open carry state) their lives. When speaking to the Daily Texan, UT–Austin senior Azeem Edwin put it simply: “The image of a Black male is a thug, while the image of a white male with a gun is [excused as carrying] for recreational use.”

Even if you identify as a student of color but do not carry a weapon, anxiety about campus carry can still persist. Worries about mistakenly falling in the crossfire of an altercation, being falsely apprehended under the assumption of being armed, or “fitting the description” of a student who means to cause harm all fall under the “inevitable unintended consequences” that UT–Austin benefactor Harry Edwards cited when removing his name from the campus’ lecture series on Sport and Society. Edwards, the co-founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights — who orchestrated the 1968 Black Power podium protest — believes strongly that guns on campus would prevent the peace of mind that comes with “normal student life and expectations.” He speaks with particular fervor about the perception of athletes, a population that proportionately contains more black students, as “in effect … too dangerous or at best too irresponsible to exercise campus concealed carry rights under the law.” Even if unarmed, these students carry an even higher risk of suspicion by their peers, administrators, and other campus officials. How are they likely to be responded to in the event of an emergency?

Representatives from campus police departments have worked diligently to ensure incoming and current students, faculty, and staff understand the implications of this new law. Ed Reynolds, chief of police at Denton’s University of North Texas, has concentrated on highlighting the differences between open and concealed carry, and empowering students to say something if a situation looks or feels off. He offers a caveat, however, noting the difference between someone presenting a weapon and someone revealing one by accident. “Someone leaning over to tie their shoe — that’s not an intentional display of a weapon.” His contemporary at UT–Austin, Gary Susswein, has conducted similar educational measures on his campus, but asserts that it is “ultimately the responsibility of licensed gun owners to know the rules.”

“Under state law, those who have a license to carry are required to be familiar with the law and the rules of the campus where they’re going,” Susswein says. “We’re trying to put as much information as we can to both help them understand it and help others understand it.”

A great deal has been said about how campus police officers have educated their constituents about the implications of the ruling, but considerably less has been said about how campus police will deal with students in the event of an altercation. Will interactions be civil and measured? Have their officers been trained on contentious relationships that may exist not just with black communities, but also with Hispanic ones or queer and trans individuals of color? And if that’s the case, should these students trust that their rights and safety will be protected? These questions may seem superfluous to many, but they make a difference to those already in fear or in danger.

The advent of Texas’ campus carry undoubtedly provides the right for students with concealed carry licenses to, as SCC advocates, “be afforded the same right to carry on college campuses that they are currently afforded virtually everywhere else.” But where it liberates some, it has the potential to hinder the freedom and psychological safety of others. And whether we’re ready to face it as a country or not, on August 1, 2016, students of color became part of the latter group.

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